St. Paul understood this well. He described the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as a “stumbling block” to the Jews, and “folly” to the Greeks. Yet he also understood that this was the most important moment in human history. Yet why is this so? Why was the Resurrection such a “game-changer?” It is one thing to say “Jesus has conquered sin and death.” Yet what does that really mean for our lives?
While Christ’s rising from the dead provides life, it also provides death to certain things. First amongst those is fear. Fear, combined with pride, is what led to our downfall in Eden. The eating of the Tree proved all too clearly we were not gods. Our death is an all too frequent reminder of that fact as well. If we are mere creatures of flesh and bone, there exists certain finality to it all.
The world operated according to a far different standard during this time. Rome was the pre-eminent power of the time of the Bible. Behind the propaganda of stability and “peace”, a far different reality existed. The conquered had the view of a British warlord:
To theft, slaughter, and rape they deceitfully name Empire; and even where they make a desert, they call it peace.
If nothing else, the Romans were brilliant at wanton slaughter of those who resisted them. For the pagan culture, there was a relative finality on this earth after death. Notions of an afterlife were relatively vague, and certainly not something that one strives for in preference for life. The Romans exploited this to the maximum. Faced with certain death or Roman service, many chose Roman service. Yet for all their success, there was a tiny sect with whom this arrangement had little to no success: an obscure loose collection of the mainly poor known as “Christians.”
To the Christians, it was not enough to say they were not afraid of death, as death was a fact for practitioners of an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. When Caesar threatened with death, the response of the Christian was the response of Tertullian (though perhaps without the bombastic nature):
But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer… Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The blood of Christians is seed… We are mown down by you, the more in number we grow;
Ignatius of Antioch (late first early second century), after begging Roman Christians not to use their influence to save his life, described his martyrdom as follows:
Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ…. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him…
Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.
The earliest Christians saw their deaths as a test of their ultimate fidelity. If they were faithful unto the end, death would not be the last word. It was not the last word for Christ, and He promised the same for us if we endured to the end. It is for this reason we speak of Rome as an era of the past, yet near two millennia later, we speak of Christianity as that which ultimately conquered Rome. Just as the people of the age cried “His blood be upon us and our children”, they did not realize what they were doing. The blood indeed was upon their descendants, bringing them to everlasting life.
While this changed the world as a whole, far more profound was the change upon the individual. If death truly held no power over Christ, death holds no true power over his disciples. If something as powerful as death was powerless against him, what are we to say of the smaller things? Have people not transformed every aspect of their lives over this fact? Temptations, addictions, none of these can hold sway over the individual if they remember Christ conquered these things. We need only follow the command He gave after rising to his friends: Follow me.